Clerks (or: I’m not getting what I need from you. Can you help?)

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly. ‘I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.” “You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

One of the problems I’m finding with feeling, understanding, and taking responsibility for  my needs is that as soon as I feel a need that is not taken care of, I start getting angry, and when I feel angry the only way I see to express my dissatisfaction is to attack personally: “you are this and you are that..!” Sometimes I say it, but often I just stop and don’t act, because I don’t think that this will bring to anything except to ruin the relationship and make the other person angry. It occurred to me that what I should do is just to say it the way it is: “I’m not getting from you what I need. Can you help?”

“I’m not getting from you what I need” is not a personal attack to the person. It brings me back into the equation. It means than I need something from  you, that I’m clearly stating what this thing is, that I consider myself valuable enough to  ask for it and have a reasonable expectation that you would try to help as much as you can. If things get tough, I could add “If you are not able to give me what I need, it’s OK. But I will find somebody else to help.” If the message is not expressed with anger or hostility, just as a matter of fact, it’s a way to give space rather than to criticize and attack.

Consider how this would be perfectly normal in a store.

Let’s assume that I’m looking for Earl Grey tea, and I can’t find it. I can go to a clerk and ask:
“Do you have Earl Grey tea? Can you help me find it?”
“OK, you don’t have it. I can either get Lipton black tea or go to another store. Thanks for your assistance.”

It’s kind of the same thing, as long as I have clear in my mind what I need from you, I feel valuable enough to ask for it, I feel strong enough to handle a rejection, and I trust you enough to be helpful and honest with me. That sounds easy, doesn’t it?

But what would happen if my clerk is a dependent/narcissistic/manipulative guy? What if he wants my money and not my happiness? He might answer something like this:

“I don’t think you really need Earl Grey. It’s an old fashion flavor that nobody wants. Besides, you can’t really afford it, it too expensive for you. And are you sure that can handle the strong taste? And why waste your time try to find it in another store? This is the best store in town, and if it’s not here, it’s because nobody else has it. I think you should just take what we have and feel happy. It’s really the best thing for you.”

(Notice that I didn’t have to think for a moment about the clerk’s reply. It just flowed out of me like the most natural thing in the world.) Let’s rewind and look at this slowly. First, he dismisses my need (you don’t really need Early Grey). Then he criticizes the thing I need (Earl Grey is old fashion, nobody wants it any more). Then, he instills the doubt that I can pay for it (meaning: that I’m worth it) or that can I actually handle it (meaning: that this is the right thing for me). Then, he states that the store is the best there is, and, if I’m not unreasonable, I should be able to find all I need there.  Then, he skillfully makes me notice how much easier and less effortful it would be to just get what he has in his store; in fact, he says, what I’m looking for doesn’t even exist. Then he tells me what I should do and how I should feel. And here you go, everything is taken care for me, with the only apparent loss of my self and my own soul.

Now, you see that this can get confusing. Because now everything is mixed up with who I am, what I really need, what I can offer, what I deserve, what I believe possible. My need is not taken at face value, but changed, distorted, and dissected. It becomes about me and the clerk rather than about a box of tea. But most of all, my entire experience is dismissed, devalued, and distorted. If this happens with somebody I care about, it can destabilize the very foundation of who I am, what I feel, and what I want.

There is a very clear risk that at this point I’ll get annoyed, and instead of politely decline the offer of just buy Lipton tea, I could get in a discussion about how I saw a box of Earl Grey tea in another store (basically saying “you are lying to me”), how I really like it (yes, this is really what I want), that I bought it in the past, so I think I can afford it, and so on. This is an infinite discussion because it’s no longer about the presence or absence of a box of tea (which is a fact), but about the validity of my request, my value, what I deserve and don’t deserve, and how well I can represent my needs. A simple request has become a big mess.

OK, but what if the clerk is brandishing an axe, has crazed eyes, and blood on his clothes? In this case I may actually take his offer of buying Lipton tea, and perhaps even compliment the store’s selection of tea before rushing out of the store as fast as I can. And if he locks the door of the store behind him, I will be even more accommodating; I would smile and follow his suggestion to try to be happy with what I can get.

And here is the real problem: all this scene happens in my head before it happens outside. As a matter of fact, it happens in my head only, because, like Mr. George W. Bush, I am an artist in preemptive actions. I don’t need to find weapons of mass disruption because I know beyond a doubt that they are there. And because I don’t verify people’s real intentions and desires, I get stuck with my over-sensitive analysis of the situation. I prevent myself from asking what I need because I think that they may get angry if I do. And I want to point out that the feel of threat and entrapment is extremely realistic.

At the foundation there is fear of making another person angry at me and a sense of inability or unwillingness to take responsibility for my needs (Miles would call this resistance). I shrink and neglect my needs when they are in real or perceived conflict with other people’s desire, because I’m afraid of the consequences. The clerk’s monologue plays in my head without any help from the outside and I project on the person in front of me what my voices are saying. And the person in front of me becomes an angry and revengeful god.

If I wait for others to take care of my needs, I get disappointed and I project on them even more demonic traits of neglect and malevolence. I’ve noticed a few times this sudden changes in my perception of others as I told them what I needed from them and found that they were actually willing to help. Or, even more surprisingly, when I did what I wanted to do even though they explicitly or implicitly told me not to; I took notice of their request or suggestion and without fearing their retribution I just ignored it and did what I wanted to. Usually nothing bad happens, I am satisfied, heard, and seen, and they are freed from the role of demons and captors.

So, there is an infortunate shift in the place of the boundaries between me and the person in front of me. Who is really responsible for holding me hostage in the store? Is the door really locked? To be able to verify that, I need to take a risk that I’m not usually willing to take. It’s the risk of giving the benefit of the doubt and to ask, and to be willing to take what it comes, even if it’s not what I would like. It’s the risk to push the boundaries, to show myself as interdependent and in need for help (rather than independent and self-sufficient)